Major entertainment companies, especially theme park brands, are struggling through an incredibly tough 2020. With pandemic shutdowns leading to restricted openings, attendance is down, costs are way up and safety concerns remain high. This has caused many theme park enterprises to make some difficult decisions regarding staffing costs. One of the largest, Disney, reportedly laid off 28,000 people in the United States alone.
The company had to know that decision would lead to some hard headlines and tough news cycles. But, in this election year, nearly every decision made by a major brand has a touch of politics, so it’s not exactly a surprise that a public thrashing from high-level politicians followed news of the layoffs.
Senator Elizabeth Warren penned a letter calling out Disney for “short-sighted” business decisions that “showered top executives with over-the-top compensation” in the midst of laying off tens of thousands of cast members. “Disney took good care of its top executives and shareholders—and is now hanging its frontline workers out to dry …” Warren said.
While blasting Disney for the salary and payout issues, the Senator’s letter credited the company for “continuing to provide health care benefits” to workers who had been furloughed due to pandemic restrictions. But that tone was short-lived as Warren said Disney had “prioritized the enrichment of executives and shareholders” in a way that “weakened Disney’s financial cushion…” that it could have used to pay frontline workers.
Disney hit back, going on network news to say Warren’s “misinformed letter” contained “a number of inaccuracies …” adding that Disney “demonstrated our ability to operate responsibly with strict health and safety protocols at all of our (open) theme parks worldwide …” The response went on to blame some layoffs on both the “prolonged pandemic” as well as the state of California refusing to allow Disney to reopen, saying the company’s California cast “wants to get back to work” and that the company reached agreements with the unions representing those cast members.
In this response, Disney offers a plausible reason for a significant number of the layoffs while also attempting to shift the conversation into a narrative the company wants in the headlines: “When will California allow the park to reopen?”
Disney also said the company looked forward to a time when it could rehire some of its workers and move forward, fully opening and welcoming guests at all its parks once again. By pushing this narrative, rather than responding directly to the letter's accusations, Disney is working to transition the primary narrative away from the negative accusations and toward a brighter future. That’s a solid PR tactic, and it will be interesting to see what, if any, additional political or PR pressure this issue generates for Disney.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.
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